The rise and fall of a celebrity chef.
Laugh along with those who say that cookery is the new rock'n'roll; beware of those who believe it to be true.
With a reputation forged in France, Jack Kennedy was the pick of the new crop of British-born chefs, and when he teamed up with a Mayfair socialite intent on establishing a restaurant to rival the world’s finest, the prospect of becoming a rich man was overshadowed by his yearning for international stardom.
But the dream turned into a nightmare when the owner decided to turn the restaurant into a private members club.
Maybe if Jack hadn’t invested his life savings he would never have risked life and limb to escape the golden handcuffs, but when his scam to recoup his stake backfired so unexpectedly, he resorted to extortion.
It would prove to be the biggest mistake he ever made.
It was not a total silence; gas burners flickered and hissed, extraction fans purred and rows of gleaming stainless steel refrigerators droned and occasionally shuddered. It was simply an atmosphere temporarily devoid of its usual bustle.
Smart in bespoke waistcoat and long, white apron, the young waiter stared nervously at the back of the man whose crouched stance hid two plates of seared turbot fillet and baby lobster tails.
Carefully spooning a frothy yellow sauce over the asparagus garnish, Jack Kennedy didn’t see the fly buzzing around the ointment jar. A final inspection of his handiwork; ‘Voilà,’ he muttered. His momentary smile went unnoticed.
‘Chef … excuse me, Chef.’ The youth’s fading acne flushed as he took two short steps back.
Slowly unfurling himself, the dour-faced head chef caught a glimpse of the half-dozen sweat-drenched cooks, all doing their best to feign indifference to what promised to be a welcome spell of waiter-baiting.
Goggle-eyed, the youngster looked up at the culinary superstar. ‘Tastes … tastes like duck!’ he stammered as he thrust a plate forward.
Up until that moment, an ornate silver knife rested against a wedge of partially eaten meat; now, dislodged by the waiter’s trembling hand, Sheffield’s sauce-speckled finest tumbled from the porcelain plate.
Looking as if he was witnessing a stabbing, the teenager stood transfixed as the knife appeared to fall in slow-motion. The noise of the metal bouncing on the ceramic floor sounded louder than the time he’d dented his mother’s Mini Metro on the concrete gatepost. He winced and shuddered at the same time.
Jack glanced down at the floor. ‘Now then. Before the guests start complaining about the racket, what’s the—?’
‘It … it tastes like duck!’
For the spectators’ benefit, the head chef hammed up his frown. ‘This dish tastes like duck, eh?’
‘Yes, Chef. I didn’t say it. It was the lady. Mister Charles’ guest. She said it, not me, Chef.’ As his north country accent became more evident, he dropped his aitches: ‘’Er, ’er.’ He pointed in the general direction of the restaurant. Even with the culprit named and shamed his grin was pitiful enough to suggest he didn’t feel entirely in the clear.
Jack took hold of the still-trembling plate. He wasn’t surprised to see the audience swelling: a small group of ‘jelly-babies’ from the larder had joined the six ‘fat-boys’ working the stoves, and a pair of ‘sugar-fairies’ had scurried all the way from the pastry department to take their places in the cheap seats.
Holding the plate at head height, he wheeled around; his movements a parody of grand théâtre. ‘A minute of your time, my culinary crusaders … and don’t look so confused. You heard it right. According to some Mayfair brothel keeper, our widely acclaimed poached fillet of venison in chervil mousse tastes like duck. Not any specific type of duck, I hasten to add. Not a caneton rouennais or a widgeon or a teal. No. Just the same old aquatic bird you might have in mind when you say fuck a duck.’
Despite being overblown, his sigh went unheard.
‘Forgive me for not joining in the jollity, but as I stand accused of being a gastronomic fraudster, I’m thinking of how best to safeguard my reputation.’ He feigned a moment’s concentration. ‘A tricky one, but considering the mouthy dimbo is talking through her arse, she might have less to say for herself if I rolled up all the pages written in praise of this dish and shoved ’em where the sun don’t shine, like a giant rectal tampon. Or maybe she’d get the message if I used a bloody great antler. Stubby end first, of course.’
His raised hand cut short the roar of laughter. ‘Both options are appealing, I must admit. But in the interest of good customer relations, I think it might be best if I rewrite the description. How does this grab you? Instead of New Forest fallow deer, how about … Bambi … Bambi with a fuckin’ beak?’
With a flourish, he tossed the plate into a nearby waste bin.
The prevailing hush was short-lived; the captivated audience rewarded their champion’s black humour with whoops of delight, yells of trendy hip-hop acclaim and a thunderous clattering of knives and pots and trays.
Looking as if the crowd were baying for his blood, the hapless messenger was watching the head chef take his curtain call when a hand gently squeezed his shoulder. Glancing up, he suddenly felt like joining in the cheering.
‘Very eloquent, Chef.’ A trained ear might have detected enough of a Gallic lilt to mark the handsome newcomer as French. ‘Many of our thespian guests would sacrifice an arm to be able to deliver such a performance.’
‘Not their own they wouldn’t,’ Jack snapped. ‘Some poor bloody stand-in’s, maybe.’
The Frenchman’s eyes couldn’t disguise the trace of amusement as he calmly directed his protégé towards the kitchen doors. Quietly chuckling at the youngster’s burst of speed, he slid his arm around Jack’s waist and steered him away from the hotplate.
Standing side by side, with the same facial features chiselled to resemble a mantelpiece pair of Ben Affleck’s, it was obvious why they were often mistaken for brothers.
Although the dark-haired Burgundian was the only one who stood as tall as the movie heartthrob, being the shorter of the two never seemed to bother Jack or his legion of admirers. As he often joked, the twelve-inch chef’s hat which hid his short-cropped mousey hair made him look taller than five-feet ten.
‘It’s okay, Jack. I’ve spoken to the lady. It’s no big deal.’
‘Well fancy that. It’s no big deal for her. Oh, whoop-oop-e-doop. Well, Stefan, mon brave, it’s a big deal for me. I don’t like people taking the piss … and I like it even less when it’s one of Charlie-boy’s floosies.’ He paused, as much to gather his composure as his thoughts. ‘They’re all fuckin’ slappers. Cooking for them is like sticking a diamond on a pig’s nose.’
Second nature drew Jack’s eyes back towards the stoves. He didn’t look surprised to see that the machine was back in top gear, lubricated by the powerful presence of his senior sous-chef. ‘Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be having a go at you. It’s not your fault.’ He was a tad puzzled when his apology wasn’t met with the usual compassionate smile.
‘Don’t worry about it. Just cool yourself down. I’ll catch up with you later.’ With a pat on Jack’s shoulder, Stefan turned about face.
Watching the other half of the so-called ‘Dream Team’ heading for the exit, Jack recalled the words he had once used during a radio interview when asked how the two of them had sustained their famous working collaboration: ‘Because Stefan Merle is one of the world’s loveliest people – he must be, to put up with me!’ Now, he was beginning to wonder if the tide of compassionate understanding was on the wane.